Videoconferencing: One packed room, some remote participants?
June 25, 2015 4:58 AM   Subscribe

I have been tasked to "Put Jane and John on our conference room screen and put all of us on their laptop screens" to turn a regular teleconference meeting into a videoconference meeting. The problem is not Jane or John: They are in quiet remote offices with laptops and Skype accounts (or any other videoconferencing accounts you may suggest). The problem is us: Thirty colleagues, backs pressed against the walls, in a long, narrow, noisy conference room built for twenty, with no room to place cameras that will capture more than a few of us.

We're the home office, and this is our staff meeting. Pointing a laptop at us in the conference room isn't enough: Only a fifth of our heads and shoulders would be seen, and only the few closest to the laptop would be heard. Watching and listening to our standalone mid-range Logitech webcam with built-in microphone would be little better.

For teleconferences, we currently use and a top-end VoiP Polycom conference phone with two remote microphones on a big conference table that takes up half the room. Jane already says she can barely hear us on that. For videoconferencing, I need to do better with new microphones, and I need to figure out how to meaningfully shoot our packed room with one or two new wide-angle webcams (and maybe a person moving around with a tablet?) so that our remote colleagues can hear us and participate with some kind of meaningful eye contact.

(Yes, we'll all be looking at two disembodied heads on our HDTV at the end of the conference room all meeting. Sorry, Jane -- don't rub your eyes! And yes, it'll be more difficult to share presentations in a webinar format because the new emphasis is on eye contact. Assume these new priorities are non-negotiable.)

What are effective ways to collect comprehensible and meaningful sound and video from a noisy, echoey, fishbowl conference room to share with a remote participant? I can do the IT angle and work with any videoconferencing provider, but I don't have the acoustic engineering angle and the usefully-film-a-packed-conference-room angle covered.

We're a nonprofit; I have hundreds, perhaps a couple thousand, but not tens of thousands of USD to spend. We can't rent or build a studio or employ a sound engineer.

Have you faced a similar challenge? Can you help me with mine?
posted by mississippi to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I worked for a non profit and we were much poorer than you sound so we were in the habit of asking supporters for this kind of stuff. I don't mean just donating equipment, I mean one of supporters was a fancy law firm with excellent set up so we'd have our meetings in their conference rooms. We did the screen thing with remote colleagues and a room full of people and it worked great but I have no idea what they used. It was just all set up for us, including fancy snacks. Is there a business that can help you in this way?
posted by stellathon at 5:52 AM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, can you sit people in rows, rather than around a big table?
posted by stellathon at 5:53 AM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

You should make sure your new "wide-angle" webcams are truly wide-angle, meaning 90 degree or greater field of view. The Logitech C930e is only about $130.

If your existing audio setup almost works, I would consider expanding it (and having remote participants dial in to audio and video separately) than replacing it as part of the new video system. At least have keep the old system as a backup option.
posted by grouse at 6:43 AM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So, in this situation, assuming that you have a room full of insanely well-intentioned and disciplined people, here is what I would do:

have everybody bring in their laptops, phones or tablets - whatever flavour each person uses, and then you all join the conference call separately. Including the remote participants of course.

You all mute your speakers except for the one speaker for the remote participants.

You all mute your microphones except for the person who is talking at this very moment.

In other words, you pretend that you are ALL remote participants; all for the benefit of Jane and John. They will get to see the person talking when they're talking (assuming there's a video feed) and hear the person far more clearly. It just makes it laborious for all of you...
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 7:35 AM on June 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

The ONLY way that I see to make conference room work is to get a camera operator and put camera on a tripod so s/he can aim at the speaker. Seems you already have the audio covered.

The LOGICAL solution is forget the conference room... Everybody stay at their desk with webcams and join Google Hangouts. :)
posted by kschang at 7:42 AM on June 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

+1 to HopStopDon'tShop's solution. The best calls I've had with multiple parties in one conference room on a regular basis took that approach.
posted by limeonaire at 7:58 AM on June 25, 2015

This Phoenix Duet speakerphone is a thing of beauty, though it sounds like you may be pushing the limits of any audio solution, short of being in a properly equipped and designed room. It has noise-gating/compression built-in, a sensitive mic, and a loud speaker. I've managed to run great meetings (6-8 local, 2-3 remote) with it, a wide angle cam (specifically researched for wide field-of-view), laptop, and large monitor.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 8:10 AM on June 25, 2015

Thirding HopStopDon'tShop. If the conference were smaller, kschang's Hangouts rec would be good, but they have a limit of 10 people (read: cameras). Actually, if it's 30 people, you could have three people at each desk and just swivel the laptop in the right direction when it's time to talk, and mute when it's not ...
posted by Pandora Kouti at 8:10 AM on June 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I join in a lot of meetings remotely. Especially with the federal government. Public meetings put on by U.S. government agencies usually have a wide angle camera at one end of a U-shaped conference table, with each seat at the table wired with a push-to-talk microphone (like these). Only one microphone can be active at a time, which makes the meeting work for the people tuning in remotely.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:43 AM on June 25, 2015

Holy **** those conference mike systems are several THOUSAND dollars.

Makes me want to write one in software, cross platform.

FWIW, here's a whole LIST of all the various web videoconferencing solutions:

VSee used to be a generic solution, but it's moving to telemedicine instead. OpenTok / Tokbox may be the next best option if you need more participants.
posted by kschang at 11:57 AM on June 25, 2015

If you go with HopStopDontShop's suggestion of having everyone individually connect with their own laptop and webcam, make sure you have a suitably beefy and reliable internet connection wherever you are as that many video streams on the same connection will likely overwhelm most bog-standard Wi-Fi setups. I wouldn't consider this to be a feasible long-term solution.

At my company we use these Microsoft Roundtable cameras which are apparently now sold by Polycom. I don't know anything about cost, but it sounds like they require you to buy a Lync/Skype for Business setup as well. They're really nice though; you put it in the middle of a conference room table, and a large, wide image shows everyone in the conference room and an inset focuses on whoever is currently speaking. Again, no idea about cost, but it sounds like exactly the sort of thing you're looking for.

Otherwise, I'd second the suggestion to skip the large meeting room and either have everyone join from their desks or meet in a few smaller rooms with a traditional webcam/projector setup.
posted by Aleyn at 2:49 PM on June 25, 2015

As someone who is often on the end of a phone trying to grasp what mumbler in the corner is saying, I applaud your efforts to do this right, and I strongly suggest - either do it right, or don't do it at all... by which I mean don't get some 25% of the way solution and call it a day, as its really a waste of time being on the end of that kind of conference.

I agree with HopStopDon'tShop's idea, we have done that to good effect (until we maxed out our network links that is).
posted by Admira at 9:47 PM on June 25, 2015

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